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How One High School Defied the Odds to Have Every Student Accepted to College

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.   

Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. made national headlines when 100 percent of their 190 seniors applied to college and got accepted. The keys to their success were community support, programs and clubs, and closer student-faculty relationships, school officials revealed at an event celebrating their success on June 15.

“The community got involved, the parents, the students; that was the beginning of change,” said D.C. Councilmember Trayon White, Sr., at the event, held at Ballou High School.  

Hosted by Opportunity Nation, as part of its Restoring the American Dream series,with convening support from America’s Promise Alliance and Urban Alliance, the event focused on the topic, “What One High School’s Success Can Teach Us About Empowering Students.” It brought together students, parents, and local and national youth development leaders.

View a recording of the event

Due to technical difficulties during the event, some parts of the recording are very quiet. We recommend
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Ninety-nine percent of Ballou students are eligible for free and reduced lunch meals. Nationally, graduation rates for students from low-income families are 13.7 percentage points lower than their peers, according to the most recent Building a Grad Nation report, making Ballou’s success particularly notable.

“What’s going on at Ballou is so heartening,” said John Gomperts, president and CEO of America’s Promise, who spoke at the event.. “It is proof that progress is possible.”

Creating a “College-Going” Culture

After years of struggling to increase its graduation and post-secondary attainment rates, Ballou’s Principal Dr. Yetunde Reeves, who joined the school in 2014, began focusing on her mission to expose all students to college and career opportunities.

The school implemented new college elective classes, created faculty mentor and advisory positions, connected students to external career resources such as the National Academy Foundation, a partner of America’s Promise, and created a “college-going” culture both in the school and in the community. 

Panel at Ballou High School in Washington DC
Opporunity Nation’s Melanie Anderson, left, interviews Assistant Principal Shamele Straughter, Senior Class President Kiara Burnett, D.C. Ward 8 Council Member Trayon White, Urban Alliance Executive Director Nathaniel Cole, and Eugene Pinkard of DC Public Schools.

“Ballou has excelled in the areas of college talk, clear expectations, information resources, and faculty involvement,” Reeves said.  

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Ballou also started promoting college assessments like the SAT, and it had more 11th grade students take the PSAT this year than in previous years. It has been implementing college elective courses since 2015, banners promoting post-secondary education hang all around the building, and staff and students wear college gear on a regular basis.

‘It was Student Voice.’

Ballou also focused on building student-staff relationships and listening to students’ ideas about what they should change.

“Our pathway coordinator, another innovation, has supported our off-track students and connected them to opportunities,” Dr. Reeves said. “Often, when we think about off-track students, we think those are students we don’t believe will graduate, but we look at that as endless potential.”

The school’s senior counselor tracks data and meets with students regularly, using a personal approach to help the students individually by designating specific staff members to be mentors for certain students.

Panel at Ballou High School in Washington DC

“A lot of the changes that we made were actually directed by students,” assistant principal Shamele Straughter said. “It was student voice.”

Several students took to the podium to share their stories of success and offer their advice.

The class of 2017 student president, Kiara Burnett, suggested introducing “life skills classes,” such as financial literacy, to the curriculum.  

Another student, Camille Benbow, shared her recommendation for the school community“to keep all programs up and running.”

“Joining a program changes students’ mindsets,” she said.

Furthermore, Benbow touched on the importance of school culture and community support. “The Ballou senior class of 2017 has inspired me to do great because all of us want the best for each other,” Benbow said. “When you surround yourself with people who want nothing but the best for them, you want the best for yourself.”

Join the GradNation Learning Community

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to  Krista O’Connell with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.

Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.  

To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.

Skylar Whitman is a communications intern at America’s Promise Alliance for the summer of 2017 and a rising senior at the University of Tampa, where she is majoring in communications with a minor in journalism.